Playing with action figures and video games is something almost every child does, so it's somewhat surprising that no one thought to combine the two before last year's release of Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure. Sure, those of us who grew up in the '80s had Captain Power, but to call that a video game would be generous. Skylanders was the first crossover product to do it well, and now the game (and toys) have returned for round two.
For those unfamiliar with Skylanders, the franchise consists of both a game and a series of posed plastic toys. Each toy contains a wireless chip inside that interacts with the corresponding game via an accessory known as the Portal of Power. When placed on the portal, the toy character appears within the game and is fully playable. Any upgrades, items or money earned in-game is saved to the toy. This allows players to bring their toys to a friend's house and continue playing with their customized character. The toys are also platform agnostic, so they work with the game no matter which console is used.
Since the toys are a big part of the franchise, Activision had to strike a balance between creating enough new toys to keep players interested while not overwhelming the pocketbooks of poor parents. In that respect, the company seems to have struck a good balance. For Skylanders: Giants, all of the existing Spyro's Adventure toys (identified by a green base) will work. This means any existing investment is preserved. While the Spyro's Adventure toys don't get the new Wow Pow power, they do have their level cap raised to 15 (from a previous cap of 10) when used with Giants.
New toys (identified by an orange base) include the supersized Giants, the glowing LightCore figures and the Series 2 characters. There are also a handful of completely new standard Skylanders. The Giants and new Skylanders toys will only work with the Giants game and will not function in Spyro's Adventure. The Series 2 figures are characters from Spyro's Adventure that have been reposed. When used in the Giants game, they have a new Wow Pow power. They can also be used in Spyro's Adventure, but the new power will not be available there.
LightCore figures consist of a mix of old and new characters. What makes them stand out is the fact that they glow when placed on the Portal of Power. It looks cool, and no batteries are required. In-game, the LightCore figures blast out a super powerful attack the first time they are placed on a portal in any given level. This makes them great support characters, especially when fighting a group, as placing a LightCore is akin to setting off a bomb. LightCore figures officially only support the Giants game, but we've been told that, unofficially, the returning characters will be recognized (sans LightCore powers) in Spyro's Adventure.
It should be noted that there are two packages available: the Giants Starter Pack and the Portal Owner's Pack. The difference between the two is $15. For that $15, you get two additional figures and a portal. The figures alone are worth the $15, so even if you already own the first game, go with the Starter Pack. It's a much better value.
Picking up where Spyro's Adventure left off, Giants follows the continuing attempts of the bumbling lord of darkness, Kaos, as he tries to take over Skylands. Over the course of the game, you'll encounter a slew of different characters, each with a distinct personality. As we mentioned in our preview, the characters are fully voiced this time around, adding an extra level of immersion. Particularly notable is George Takei as an evil Arkeyan war robot who helps Kaos.
Gameplay in Giants feels like a cross between Diablo II and Gauntlet, with a dose of cute tossed in for good measure. It's straightforward enough for young children to understand but deep enough to appeal to adult gamers. One of the big complaints about Spyro's Adventure was that the single difficulty level was tuned for young players. In Giants, there are four difficultly levels (the hardest must be unlocked by first beating the game once), and the high end provides plenty of challenge. In short, Giants isn't a cakewalk.
When you first start out with a character, combat is limited to two basic attacks. Those can be upgraded (and a third attack added) by earning coins in-game and purchasing upgrades. There is no jump ability, so movement is generally constrained to two planes. Even so, the game smartly makes occasional use of height for puzzles and hidden areas by offering up cliffs and fixed jump pads.
Level design is one aspect where Giants excels, in part due to the creative placement of hidden items. If you just want to get to the end of a level, Giants offers up a straightforward path. You will face some puzzles in the later levels, but nothing is insurmountable. Where the challenge (and addictive nature of the game) lies is in the collection of all the hidden items. It is pretty much guaranteed that you won't find everything on your first playthrough.
Because Giants uses the toys to create the player's in-game character, there are no "lives" in the traditional sense. Instead, each Skylander toy has a single life per level. If a character "dies," it is merely knocked out for the rest of the level, and the game prompts you to swap in another character. You don't have to wait for the prompt, though, as players can swap toys at almost any time. If a particular character is getting low on health, you're free to swap out another until you find food for the one in need. If your current character has a narrow attack and you need one with a wider range, swap them out.
The game is designed to encourage multiple character play, so swapping toys is completely painless. Really, the only downside to swapping between toys is the fact that experience and coins are not shared between characters. Each toy stores its own data, so if one has collected a lot of money, it cannot be used to upgrade another. If you're a completionist, expect to replay Giants a few times as you level up each of your toys.
One way in which Giants encourages players to use multiple characters is by offering boosts to a specific element (each character is aligned with one of eight elements) in each area. Swapping to a character of a matching element gives you an attack bonus. There are also elemental locks that can only be opened by a matching character. Thankfully, these are limited to non-essential sections and are not needed to complete the game. In fact, it's entirely possible to complete Giants using only the three characters in the Starter Pack. Chances are good, though, that you'll succumb to purchasing additional toys at some point, either for yourself or the kids.
In addition to the single-player game, Giants also offers co-op and competitive local play. Co-op has two players going through the story, while competitive offers up four simple deathmatch style games: arena rumble, ring out, skygem master and skygoals. Arena rumble is one-one-one deathmatch. Ring out has players building up a super punch by attacking. Once it's filled, you need to unleash the super punch near the edge of the ring in order to knock your opponent over the side. Skygem master has you racing to collect five gems before your opponent. You can steal a gem by attacking your opponent. Finally, Skygoals is a fantasy take on American football.
The competitive modes may be a bit basic when compared to something like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Gears of War 3 or Halo: Reach, but for what they are, they work well. An option to normalize levels between two different Skylanders means every fight is fair, and the simple controls ensure that both casual and advanced players can have fun.
One aspect where Giants stumbles is in camera control. There doesn't seem to be any way to invert the controls, and there is also no manual camera option. This is likely a result of the development team wanting to keep things simple for kids, but given the game's visual splendor as well as the amount of hidden goodies, having a manual camera option would have been a blessing. Another minor complaint has to do with the pre-rendered cinema scenes. Creatively, they're quite amusing, but when viewed on a large-screen HDTV, jaggies become quite apparent. Thankfully, the visual artifacts don't appear during actual gameplay.
It would be easy to overlook Skylanders: Giants as "just a kids' game," but to do so would be a disservice. Giants is one of those rare titles that offers something for everyone, whether you're a kid, a casual player or a hardcore gamer who has been playing for years. In the end, it's plenty of fun, and that's what really matters.
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